Patricia M. Wald

Patricia M. Wald
"I see the law as a way to translate our most fundamental aspirations and goals for an open and orderly society that treats all people in the community with respect and in keeping with their behavior toward others and as a vehicle in which to move our society and everyone in it to a better place. It doesn't always work out that way in the short run, but I never stop trying."
- Patricia M. Wald

Induction Category:
Politics, Government & Law

Born: 1928

Inducted: 2011

Town: Torrington

Throughout her distinguished career, The Honorable Patricia Wald has shaped policy and championed justice in the U.S. and around the globe. As the first woman appointed to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, Judge Wald paved the way for future generations of women in the legal profession. After her retirement from the federal bench, she went on to serve on the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague, hearing cases involving the former Yugoslavia. Known for her practical handling of cases involving the rights of women, children and the poor and her trailblazing approach to international law, her career in public service has had a lasting impact by showing the humanitarian role the law can play both at home and abroad.

Patricia McGowan was born on September 16, 1928, in Torrington, Conn., the daughter of Joseph McGowan and Margaret O’Keefe. Shortly after her birth, Joseph McGowan left his family leaving Margaret to raise their daughter. Alone and lacking resources, Margaret moved in with her mother and began working in a factory. Though she had not finished high school and no one in the family had ever attended college, she was determined that her daughter would go to college and have the opportunity to lead a different kind of life.

After graduating from high school, Patricia McGowan won a scholarship to Connecticut College for Women where she was encouraged by one of her teachers to consider law school. In 1948, she graduated Phi Beta Kappa and first in her class and won a scholarship to Yale University Law School. Her summer work in factories had provided her with income to pay for college, but also gave her a keen understanding of the labor movement and the social needs of blue-collar workers. These experiences inspired her to pursue labor law, which could help make conditions better for working-class people. One of only 11 women in her class, she excelled and became Case Editor of the Yale Law Journal, graduating with honors in 1951. Two law school professors recommended her for a federal clerkship with Judge Jerome Frank, on the Second Circuit. Though it was unusual for women to have federal clerkships at the time, Judge Frank believed in giving women opportunities and the experience proved invaluable.

During her third year of law school, Patricia McGowan met and fell in love with fellow law student Bob Wald who also took a clerkship after graduation. The couple married in 1952 and moved to Norfolk, Va., where Bob was stationed with the Navy. Patricia Wald worked briefly for the Washington, D.C. firm Arnold, Fortas, and Porter before taking ten years off to raise five children. Throughout this time, she continued to pursue professional interests, researching and consulting on poverty issues and the criminal justice system.

In 1964, Wald co-authored a book, Bail in the United States, which helped to reform the nation’s bail system. This work led to her appointment by President Johnson to the President’s Commission on Crime in D.C. Three years later, in 1967, she re-entered the legal profession as an attorney in the Department of Justice’s Office of Criminal Justice. In 1968, following the change of administration, Wald left the Justice Department and joined the innovative Neighborhood Legal Services Program in Washington, D.C. Her interest in the root causes of crime and violence led to further research on drug abuse and, in 1971, she turned her attention toward public interest law, joining the Center for Law and Social Policy, one of only two public interest firms in existence at the time. She worked on cases primarily involving children, mental health, and disability rights.

When President Jimmy Carter took office in 1977, he was determined to appoint more women to his administration. Wald was appointed Assistant Attorney General for Legislative Affairs and served in this post until her appointment by President Carter to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in 1979. Though her confirmation was not a smooth process, the U.S. Senate finally approved her nomination and Judge Wald became the first woman appointed to the D.C. Circuit Court, often referred to as the nation’s second most important court after the Supreme Court.

Judge Wald remained on the Court for twenty years and authored more than 800 opinions. In 1986, she became Chief Judge. While on the Court, Wald heard cases involving every kind of administrative law from energy cases to presidential directives and freedom of information cases to national security issues. Her experience on the court provided a fascinating view into every facet of public policy and gave her the opportunity to serve as mentor to countless young lawyers and clerks. In addition to her responsibilities as a federal judge, in 1994, Wald became active in the American Bar Association’s Central and Eastern European Law Initiative (CEELI), designed to provide technical advice for establishing new judicial structures in the new democracies emerging from the former Soviet Union.

When she retired from the federal bench in 1999, Wald was appointed U.S. representative to the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague and served a two-year term on the court charged with hearing cases related to the former Yugoslavia. This new assignment posed many challenges for Judge Wald and her colleagues as much of International Law had not yet been written. She quickly rose to a leadership role within the court and through her leadership helped to establish standards and procedures to ensure the rule of law and the respect of human rights.

Since leaving the International Criminal Tribunal, Judge Wald has continued to serve in many capacities, in both the public policy and human rights arenas. In 2002, she became chair of the Open Society’s Justice Initiative Board. Two years later, President George W. Bush appointed her to the President’s Commission on Intelligence Capabilities of the U.S. Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction, an independent commission charged with evaluating the intelligence and policy decisions that led to the 2003 invasion of Iraq in. In 2010, Judge Wald began serving on the Constitution Project’s Guantanamo Task Force.

The Honorable Patricia Wald has received innumerable honors and awards including more than 20 honorary degrees. In 2002, she was honored by the International Human Rights Law Group for her lifelong commitment to Human Rights. In 2004, she received the American Lawyer Hall of Fame Lifetime Achievement Award, and, in 2008, was the recipient of the American Bar Association Medal, the organization’s top honor, presented to an individual who has “rendered exceptionally distinguished service to the cause of American jurisprudence.” In 2011, she was recognized by the Constitution Project as the 2011 Constitutional Champion.

Patricia Wald remains active in countless professional organizations and commissions, continues to serve on the board of the Open Society’s Justice Initiative as well as the Advisory Board of the Coalition for the International Criminal Court, and has been recognized as a champion of justice around the world. Her trailblazing career has served as an inspiration to generations of public interest lawyers and women entering the legal profession.


During This Time
1966 - Today: Struggle for Justice